What Sports Psychology Teaches Us About the Early Stages of Team Development

RomedyMCNews

With year one of the HGC in the books, professional and amateur players alike will find themselves on new teams with new teammates, playing new roles, and grinding games for individual improvement. Teams will theorycraft, make spreadsheets, play team league, and watch replays in preparation for season 2. Turnover is frequent in eSports, suggesting that organizations, managers, captains, coaches, and analysts should be well versed in team building principles and concepts. The following article provides information about the early-stage development of teams (of 12 or fewer players) and how to rapidly move beyond the foundational stage. Subsequent articles will cover the topics of the progression/regression stage and end-of-team termination.

Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, professor emeritus at Stanford University, provides us a framework for groups of between 5 and 12 individuals. Yalom’s model[1] is particularly applicable to eSports teams since there is no “end” date; Yalom’s model is continuous and ongoing. Models for “traditional” sports teams often assume a seasonal approach to team building, which implies a day on which the team will “end”. eSports teams can have very long-standing rosters (such as EU’s FNatic, NA’s Tempo Storm), suggesting an ongoing model is most appropriate. However, since turnover is frequent in the eSports world, the model must also include a rapid, generic model for early-stage foundation and development. Yalom’s theory of group development does precisely this and includes two main components: The Rule of Five and the Four Foundational Elements of Groups.

The Rule of Five

The Rule of Five is an interpersonal process concept that is uniquely suited to Heroes of the Storm. Stated simply, the Rule of Five guarantees that at least two unique opinions exist in a group of five or more people. Further, someone else is likely to share your opinion! This is important for HotS teams because it suggests team members often experience a 3-2 split in opinion. We can apply this in a myriad of ways: drafting, rotations, macro-decisions, target priority, etc. For the purposes of this article, the Rule of Five suggests that a team simultaneously views two different choices as “right” or “correct”. In the eSports world, we talk about “min/max’ing”, which implies that decision-making is a dimensional task. Said another way, there may not be a single “absolute correct” choice but a constellation of “team-congruent” choices.

Further, research suggests that the first opinion stated is most often the minority opinion! To summarize ~30 years of research, those who speak first are often the boldest, most self-assured, aggressive, and/or outspoken. However, the first opinion is also the least likely to be challenged. From a developmental perspective, this makes sense. Those who have the courage to speak first are often rewarded for doing so (at home, in school, at work, etc. Are elementary school teachers pleased to see students’ race to get their hand up first? Do they praise and reward correct answers? Does your boss at work reward the courage to answer first in meetings?) The difference in HotS is that any single decision is, only rarely, the absolute correct one. In HL and TL, this often leads to trolling, fighting, and non-participation. In early-stage team development, this means decision-making should always receive criticism in replay and analysis. (I omit in-game challenges here for early-stage development since that can impair progress along the support, trust, and cohesion dimensions, discussed below.)

As an example, let’s take the issue of siege camp timing on Sky Temple. When is the “correct” time to take your siege camp? Teams generally agree that it is after the first temple phase and before the second temple phase. This is roughly a 2-minute window, and the “correct” time is not absolute. Several variables must be taken into consideration, suggesting that no single decision is ever completely “right”.

The Rule of Five also informs the different sub-groupings that exist in a team. Said simply, duos, trios, a quartet, and the quintet exist. However, the quartet and quintet are often forced or artificial, such as in a 4-man rotation or a core call to end a game. Since the team most often exists in a 3-2 split, it is the strongest triad that sets the “floor” for performance and the weakest dyad that sets the “ceiling”.

Through majority action, the strongest triad influences team performance and decision-making, creating a lower boundary for how poorly a team can perform. This suggests teams that spend time together outside of full-team practice can improve by practicing in groups of three. This also suggests that when duo-queueing team league, the dyad will do better if it follows the lead of the triad. (This is especially true when the dyad thinks the triad is wrong.)

The weakest dyad is not the minority opinion. Rather, the weakest dyad often represents the two individuals with opposite opinions. Working on this dyad serves to drive team synergy, raising the performance ceiling. In essence, work on the weakest dyad serves to bring the differing opinions closer together, improving team cohesion.

Note that I have made no mention of the group of one, or the individual. While individual performance often draws attention in other team sports (since we, the viewers, identify with, model, and emulate the actions of the individual), the individual has, in Yalom’s model, little impact on overall team performance in the moment. In HotS, we see this individual identification in the meme, “git gud” or the wisdom of improving through playing hero league. While hero league is a great place to practice mechanics and individual decision-making, it offers essentially zero opportunities to improve communication, teamwork, support, trust, etc. In this way, our colloquial focus on individual improvement via hero league is woefully inappropriate for the team improvement as HL actively discourages support and trust. Said another way, this is an error of correlation. In the context of a team, no single action occurs in a vacuum; every single action is dependent upon the sum of the team’s actions.

Four Foundational Elements: Consistency, Support, Trust, & Cohesion

Yalom[1] presents four elements that form the foundation of a team: consistency, support, trust, and cohesion. These elements exist in a hierarchy, meaning consistency must be met before support can exist, support must exist before trust, and so on. Further, these elements are dimensional, meaning they are never met or achieved; a team exists somewhere between the absence and full presence of the element. Once solidified, these four elements allow teams to progress forward, improve, and reach new heights. Stagnation can be viewed as a disruption in one or more elements. For example, a loss of trust in the team necessitates a return to the foundation, implying the team must solidify trust before team improvement can continue. To be clear, a return to the foundation implies lower overall team performance.

Inconsistent → Consistency → Consistent

Unsupportive → Support → Supportive

Distrusting → Trust → Trusting

Incohesive → Cohesion → Cohesive

Consistency

The first element, consistency, refers to practicing at the same time, on the same days, with the same teammates. Consistency is built by showing up on time, contributing to the team in the same way, etc. As the first element, disruptions in consistency affect the other three elements. Said another way, support, trust, and cohesion cannot exist without consistency. Being absent for a practice has significant ramifications for the team, as the disruption in consistency disrupts the other foundational elements and halts team improvement. This also suggests that practicing whenever the team is available is an inefficient and ineffective method as the team will constantly be working to solidify consistency. Perhaps the best way to establish this dimension is to set a practice schedule with specific start/end points with specific partners and with clear, reasonable rules. Reach out to a few teams and set recurring times to practice against one another. Finally, practices require 100% attendance. Situations such as illness and emergency invariably pop-up and must be respected, but such absences also significantly disrupt team development. Finally, practicing at the scheduled time and place with an established partner can be enhanced by setting clear, concise, reasonable, achievable goals. Practice in the absence of goals is likely to result in foundational advancement, but once the foundation is solidified progress is likely to slow or stagnate in the absence of purposeful practice.

Support

The second element, support, refers to the way in which teammates communicate with one another. Support is more than just mechanical skill but includes actions such as hitting skill shots, rotations, communication, and reactions to called shots. Perhaps surprisingly, support also includes disagreements. It is unreasonable to expect a team of 5 individuals to agree on absolutely everything all the time. A primary disruption to support is blame. Yalom would argue that blame serves no helpful role in team progression. From Yalom’s perspective, each team member contributes to each decision made by the team. In this way, blame is best applied to the team and not the individual. My personal preference is to remove blame entirely from the team’s vocabulary. I place essentially zero value on past outcomes unless some learning can take place. Even then, the point at which no new learning occurs is the point at which blame is useless. I would encourage teams to focus on things within their control, which by definition are present- and future-oriented behaviors. (Past behaviors occurred but cannot be changed; our interpretation of them can change, however.)

To spend a moment more on blame, my approach to replay analysis is to treat the replay as involving “characters”, as in a book or movie. I purposefully refrain from using player names and instead refer to the character being played, i.e. Rehgar, Valla, etc. By doing so, I attempt to separate what factually happened from any judgements of what happened. Doing so allows us to break down and analyze, or “process”, the event in a beneficial way. 

To illustrate, assume you are conducting a replay analysis. As you read the following vignettes, try to be mindful of your own thoughts and emotions.

“Now, right here, Romedy vaults forward, which was dumb, because he gets caught by an Uther stun, eats a Ming orb, and has no way out. I’m not even sure what she thought was going to happen by vaulting that far forward. In the future, Romedy, you can’t do that, man. You just can’t.”

“Now, right here, Valla vaults forward. She gets caught by an Uther stun, eats a Ming orb, and has left herself no escape. This death sets off a chain that results in your opponent getting the DK, so I’d like to pause here for a moment. What are some reasons for Valla to vault forward there? What might she have been trying to accomplish?”

How did you react to the two stories? Was it different? How so? Notice that at the end of the second vignette I am probing for positive outcomes. As an analyst, my job is to never view any single actions as right or wrong. Rather, it is to facilitate a deeper understanding of why actions were taken, within the context, and pull for multiple future possibilities since no single action may ever be the “right” one. Also notice, at the end of the first vignette, I have been told what “not” to do. This removes an action but does not generate new possibilities. This has restricted my growth as a player and limited my future choices without adding to my possibilities.

Finally, work on the support dimension often involves changes to our interpersonal style. We must learn how to validate our teammates, how to communicate with our team, and how to accept constructive criticism. These topics are beyond the scope of the current article but may appear in a future one.

Trust

The third element, trust, often takes longer to establish than either of the first two elements. Colloquially, we tell one another that, “trust has to be earned”. If trust must be earned, then we are all playing a waiting game. Logically, if we are all waiting, then trust is never earned. In practical application, we often set semi-arbitrary conditions for earning trust. This process is long, tedious, vulnerable to setbacks, and inherently unfair to all involved. Logically, then, earning trust can work only rarely.

Yalom argues that, “Trust cannot be earned, but must be given”. To apply this to the team setting, Yalom asks us to set clear, defined guidelines when working on the trust dimension. This goes hand-in-hand with goal setting, as working on trust often is an early-stage goal for teams. This may take the form of calling targets, skill shots, rotations, etc. In short, improving communication is an easy way to work on the trust dimension.

Disruptions in trust may manifest as hesitancy, verbal challenges, diminished communication, and argument. These situations can be difficult to handle and may involve strong emotion. As a rule, I handle disruptions in trust by asking the team to hit the pause button and rewind 10 seconds. Processing the prompting event in a neutral stance is, in my view, crucial. As the analyst, I must place equal weight on the opposing viewpoints. Said another way, I cannot myself pass judgement. Once the opposing viewpoints are identified, my job is to ask questions aimed at building empathy, or perspective-taking. Research suggests a key component of building trust is the ability to see from another’s viewpoint. This method also has the advantage of working on the support dimension and strengthening the duo. While this is my preferred method, many others exist and are surely appropriate.

Cohesion

The fourth element, cohesion, is similar to synergy. A cohesive team performs at a higher level than any individual member. Disruptions in any of the other three elements manifest as disruptions in cohesion, making it a difficult dimension to sustain. Further, cohesion is difficult to describe in general terms. The unique team environment, situation, personalities, setting, context, etc., all contribute to team cohesion.

Conclusion

Teams that do not achieve stability of the four foundational elements enter a period of stagnation. Once a lack of improvement has been identified, teams should identify the foundational disruption and take steps to solidify the particular element. By doing so, teams can exit stagnation and move into the cycle of improvement and regression. Unfortunately, teams often view early struggles (or lack of immediate success) as a sign that improvement is not likely to occur. Instead, teams would do well to recognize that the foundation itself requires work and meaningful improvement cannot happen until it is concretized. Further, regression is an expected, and natural, experience for the team. It is unreasonable to expect that the foundation will always remain solid.

Teams that achieve stability in all 4 foundational elements enter a cycle of improvement and regression, which will be the subject of a follow-up article.

References

[1] - Yalom, I. D., & Leszcz, E. (2005). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, 5th Ed.. New York, NY: Penguin Books. Provides the theoretical orientation through which team development and evolution occurs.

Other References that influenced this article:

Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, 2nd Ed. New York, NY: Guilford Press. Provides the concept of the “dialectic” and a model for conflict resolution

Teyber, E., & McClure, F. H. (2006). Interpersonal Process in Therapy: An Integrative Model, 6th Ed.. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole. Provides the foundation for interpersonal interaction, early learning, and the comparison of “then” versus “now” as a medium for change.

RomedyMC

Caleb “RomedyMC” Hallauer is a 3rd year graduate student in clinical psychology at Washburn University. He has served as the coach/analyst for several amateur Heroes of the Storm teams, including Ascension, Senix, and TQ. He currently is the analyst for team ODI, is an intern at the Bert Nash Community Health Center, and conducts research on the applications of “traditional” sports psychology to the emerging eSports scene.